By Linnea Travis Miller
Churches maintained the earlier cemeteries; public grounds did not come into their own until the late 1800’s. Many families had a burying place on their farms, oft-times within site of the main house. You sometimes can find many generations on this plot of ground. Farm cemeteries were still used into the early 1900’s in central Pennsylvania.
I spoke to Tom Lehman of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Tom is a genealogist who took the time to methodically document many of the farm cemeteries in this area. Tom stresses that the most important thing to do before you visit the farm cemetery is to seek permission from the property owners. Most farmers do no not appreciate people tramping through their fields, especially at planting-time. By asking first you may also gain additional information about the family and many even find out about a second or third, previously unknown area with more family burials.
Another important point that Tom mentions is to disturb as little as possible. If you must move an overturned stone in order to read it, make sure it is replaced exactly as found. Tom tells about one field cemetery he visited where someone before him had moved all the stones in order to get better light in which to read them. They were all lined up against the fence! Often husbands, wives and children are buried together, moving the stones upsets the identification of family-members, especially if you’re looking for verification. Also, by returning everything as it was found, allows future seekers a better chance of gaining permission to view the stones.
Tom recommends visiting field cemeteries in early spring or late fall, before and after planting and harvest. Another reason to choose these seasons is that the overgrowth is at a minimum with much less brambles and briars to walk through. I will add another reason; less wildlife! How many have walked up to an overturned stone only to find a snake sunning itself?
Most of the field cemeteries which Tom visited are considered “abandoned:” no family is around any longer for the upkeep. Some have even been plowed over or built upon (acht, progress!). Most of the stones were of a crude marble or sandstone. Either way, some inscriptions were very difficult to decipher. I usually bring a spray bottle of water along with me. Sometimes this helps to “bring out” the letters and dates. Also, time of day has a lot to do with the ability to read the stones. Try to make your visit in the morning. I have learned most people were buried with feet facing East! That way they will be ready when the Lord appears from the East on His second coming.
I’m sure many of you can recall interesting or funny experiences from your cemetery visits. I’d like to share one from a friend:
“We were led from the family homestead to the very cemetery where the ancestors were buried. However, after following the map we were provided with, all that we could see concerning the cemetery was just a farmer’s field. Nonetheless, undaunted, we started out over the vague land through the fields until we spotted a grove of trees in the middle of it. Ah Hah! No farmer has a grove of trees in the middle of his fields. That’s where the cemetery must be. And so we headed straight for the trees, found the cemetery, crawled through the cabled-in area and looked around.
“We paused a moment inside the sunlight-speckled dimness of the cemetery, looking around at the broken tombstones among the low brush and the deep animal excavations. It was obvious that it had not been cared for in many years. But rather than being saddened by the sight, we were thrilled to be standing in the midst of the graves of our ancestors’ family.
“Slowly we picked our way from one stone to the other, cautiously avoiding the holes and brambles. We examined each stone and the inscriptions on them. We were mostly interested in finding the graves of our ancestors, but we wrote down the inscriptions of all the stones because we were not that well acquainted with the first names of our new family and it was obvious that the entire family was buried there. We took pictures of the stones hoping that some of them might prove to be the graves of a grandmother or grandfather.
“There was one tombstone that intrigued us more than the others. It was larger and obviously older than the rest and we felt that it was the grave of either Henry Jacobs or his son, George, Sr. (our direct ancestors). It was of a bluish slate and about half the face of it had broken off in layers. Only a partial inscription was left.
“To the right of the stone was only the very base of what was obviously a similar tombstone and small pieces of slate were scattered around on the ground nearby. Norma had been picking through the pieces in the hopes of finding bits of inscriptions on them. Soon she was seriously digging with her hands into the soft earth in front of the base of the missing stone in an attempt to find more pieces. Then with the aid of a stick she had picked up, she was able to dig down a few inches and came up with a much larger piece of slate. With anticipation, we examined it, but there was no inscription.
“Inspired by her efforts, I found a good stout stick and started helping. What a scene we must have made. Norma in her fur coat and me perspiring in my fleece-lined jacket, both of us on our hands and knees, digging furiously in an overgrown cemetery in the middle of some farmer’s field. We had just given new meaning to the phrase “digging up your ancestors”. It wasn’t long before we took off our coats and draped them over the upright tombstone. It almost seemed sacrilegious, but we hoped Grandpa wouldn’t mind.
“We kept digging downward, finding larger and larger layers of tombstone, none with an inscription. We had dug about a foot down when we found a larger piece about two feet tall and one foot wide. As it lay embedded in the earth, we brushed the dirt off the surface, but found no inscription. We carefully dug around and under it with our fingers, trying to get a good grasp on it so that we could lift it out in one piece. Carefully we pulled it out and turned it over. There was a little bit of an inscription on it. We reverently propped it up next to the upright stone.
“We paused to catch our breath and satisfied that we had seen all that there was to see in the cemetery, we brushed the russet-brown earth from our hands as well as we could and started back down the lane, occasionally stopping to pick at the burdocks that had fastened themselves all over our clothing.
“It wasn’t until much later when I studied the notes I had taken at the Historical Society and compared them with the few clues we had literally dug up that day that I realized we had dug up our great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Maria Jacob, wife of George, Sr. Maria was born December 29, 1726 and died January 1, 1801. And I’m certain that Grandmaw and Grandpaw were happy that we visited them that day almost 200 years later!”
Used with permission from Vee L. Housman.
Check with the local Historical Society, most will know the locations of many of these “cornfield” cemeteries. Some may even have a county map with the locations marked. And be sure to get permission from the landowner first.
So, happy hunting.
Published in U S Legacies Magazine January 2004